Chapter 1: The Unlikely friends
With the loss of his daughter at an early age and his injury from a previous battle, that prevented him from having any more children, the Old General found himself lonely. For a time after his wife left him, teaching provided him with some comfort, but after so many years of being a general and a tutor, he found a new purpose in life. He was determined to dedicate himself to that purpose: raising Soo-Ah. He would be saving a life for all the ones that he had taken. Later he would tell Soo-Ah that she was reborn in the war.
Her new birthday was celebrated in winter, on the day he found her, though the girl was most likely born in spring.
“Soo-Ah! Soo-Ah!? Where did you hide, you ungrateful child? Come out this instant! What no good thing are you up to with that rascal, Jung-In? I swear I will tell the ol’ master, and he will leave you both without supper. Soo-Ah! Jung-In! Come out right now!” The reprimands of Ha-Rin Noona could be heard all around the general’s manor, every day.
After his first years of military service completed with honours, the king awarded general Ming-Jun a fertile patch of land together with several slaves. The land was situated in the northern territory in the province of Wiryeseong, between two rivers, near a prosperous village.
These types of honours continued after each successful campaign, but the general decided it would be better to share the newly received land between his bravest soldiers. He freed the slaves allowing those wanting, to settle on the new properties to become free people who could work the fields.
The manor he built on the first property he received from the king, consisted of a housing complex of three buildings, and a storing unit. All of these were encompassed by a tall traditional white fence that allowed entrance to the inner court, through the main gate.
The entrance to the courtyard had a canopy of blanched clay tiles and led to a road connecting the house to the village, and the rest of the kingdom. Anyone arriving at the front gate would see a shrivelled wooden sign with a blessing scrawled over its surface: “In a world filled with dreamers, the bravest are the ones who follow their dreams.”
“Jung-In, you mischievous boy, you better not have brought Soo-Ah near the river again! You just watch as I tell your papa, Han-Gyeol!! Your butt will feel the sting of that administrator’s rod of his!” continued to call Ha-Rin, after looking for the two all around the courtyard.
“Ol’ master better start giving you lessons soon, and set you both on the righteous path!” she added only for her ears to hear, as she passed by the building that housed the principal sitting area, the master’s study and the kitchen.
Finding no trace of the children in the living quarters, the young servant headed with hasted steps on the old worn path leading from the back entrance, past the animal’s pen, all the way to the cultivated fields.
Only the small grove, shielding the river that peacefully carved its way through the bedrock, could be seen as she skimmed the horizon. There was no trace of the young girl and the unruly boy.
Taking one deep breath, Ha-Rin got ready to give one more try calling,
“Jung-In! Soo-Ah! You better not be playing again in the old burrow! Remember how you two got head lice? Want me to shave your heads again? Your hair should have been all the way to your waist by now. Don’t you bring shame to the ol’ master’s name again!”
Ha-Rin remembered how the children sat together in their chairs, with tears streaming on their cheeks and holding their hands for comfort, while strands of hair came down and carpeted the slab floor in the kitchen.
Not getting any answers, she shrugged her shoulders before returning to the kitchen to continue preparing dinner. Hunger would make sure the naughty pair showed up at the table.
Soo-Ah chased and climbed every nook Jung-In went like they were glued on the hip. Her short bob cut hair and her plain calico clothes suited their playful activities.
Jung-In’s mother died around the time the general returned with the baby girl. He was not yet two years old. Almost four years later, they were the unlikely pair, running around making havoc, quarrelling, climbing trees, skinning their knees, and playing in the dirt.
The fact that at his house, Soo-Ah would find as a companion the administrator’s boy was added joy for the general, who feared the girl would grow up lonely without the possibility of having siblings. So, the young Jung-In found himself becoming the big brother. A role that was not fit for this unruly child because he could not behave any less like a big brother. He would tease Soo-Ah, making her do bad deeds, tricking her and generally making her chase him around in tears, threatening him,
“I will tell grandfather! I will tell uncle (Jung-In’s father) on you!” she yelled after the boy, with a lisp, enraged how Jung-In would make fun of the way she was speaking after she lost her two front teeth.
They would take a long time to grow back and would leave her with a tooth gap. Later on, this gap would give her a certain appeal.
Playing around the manor they could go unseen from morning until noon. But that did not happen today since the animal’s pen was alive with the chicken and the roosters quaking. Jung-In was chasing them all over the yard making the dust rise in the air as fine brown mist, and all this time he was laughing and barking like a dog:
“Look Soo-Ah, I’m a dog, I’m a dog, bark - bark! I am going to catch dinner now!” - laughed Jung-In, running around in his white peasant clothes, trying to corner a young chick.
The chick was running straight until it suddenly changed direction. Soo-Ah faced Jung-In with an angered look and the corners of her mouth bent downwards.
“Stupid Jung-In! Noona told you not to scare the chickens! They will not give us eggs tomorrow. You know I love eggs on my Kimchi and grandfather loves it too,” admonished the girl then she added, “You just wait! I am going to punish you!”
She grabbed a broomstick that was almost taller than her and ran after Jung-In around the yard, unknowing that she was also chasing the scared chickens.
The boy loved the chase and his distinct pair of amber eyes lit up. Those eyes were the most beautiful asset of his face, right now, as they had the magical power to project whatever he had going on inside and made anyone looking at them, empathize.
The boy could not stop laughing and teasing the little girl:
“You can’t catch me! You can’t catch me! A dog is too fast for stupid little girls! Na Na Na Na Na!”
She made a couple of swings on Jung-In, but the boy was taller and could dodge better so, in a fit of despair she threw the stick at the boy’s head, and the stick did not miss its target. Jung-In fell to the ground with the left part of his back-head throbbing. The pain drove him to tears as he scratched the thump and ruffled his brownish hair.
“Look what you did to me, stupid? It hurts so bad. What if I die from all this pain? I am telling ‘on’ you! You just wait, Soo-Ah!” Once he got up, he started to run for the house where the old master and his father were discussing the upcoming ploughing.
After a brief feeling of triumph, Soo-Ah soon realized what she had done, and seeing the boy start to cry she was also on the verge of tears. Hearing Jung-In would snitch on her she became furious. How dare he tell on her? He was the one making all this trouble, and she was only trying to teach him a lesson. She tailed the boy as he ran towards the house.
“Old Master, Old Master, look what Soo-Ah did to me! She hit my head. It hurts so bad, old master... I hope I will not die.” - Jung-In wiped his tears and tried to catch his breath to sound more coherent.
Panting from trying to catch up with Jung-In, Soo-Ah slipped and almost fell in the doorway, but that did not deter her from telling her side of the story,
“Grandpa, Jung-In was chasing the chickens so that they will not give you eggs for your breakfast tomorrow, and I wanted to teach him a lesson. But he ran away. He did not let me spank his butt ‘like’ uncle does.” And turning to Jung-In she said in a condescending tone, “Your butt could have hurt now instead of your head!”
The old general tried not to appear amused at the conversation. He put on a stern face as he commanded attention with a cough into his hand. He needed to address the seriousness of the situation after all; the hitting each other. Bad words and banter were one thing, but he did not like when things got physical as he was afraid of how it could degenerate. Keeping the children apart was not an option either since they should learn to mend their differences soon.
“Soo-Ah, Jung-In - you know how I feel about hitting and that I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour.” Old Master’s tone was harsh and made the two children bow their heads in embarrassment. Then, he added on a softer note,
“If one of you hits the other the rule is that I will punish you both. In my eyes, it does not matter who raised his hand first, as the other one should also wonder if he did something wrong. Jung-In, you have to admit to what you did to make Soo-Ah hit you.”
The boy glanced with scared eyes at his father, knowing full well what was coming for him after, then he answered,
“I wanted to show Soo-Ah that I can be a dog, Old Master, and I wanted to catch dinner for her,” - said he with sincerity in his voice, and then continued, feeling his frustrations bubbling up, “But she never likes what I do, Old Master, she always yells at me and calls me stupid.”
Barely letting him finish, Soo-Ah spurred her own words:
“That is not true, stupid. You always do stupid things; you always pick on me and you never listen to me!”
“Why should I listen to you, stupid? I am a boy, and I am older.” - protested Jung-In while he and Soo-Ah were at each other’s faces arguing.
“Older yes, but you are a stupid boy, stupid.” -retorted Soo-Ah.
“Enough!” - came with a loud thud to the old master’s voice.
“I want you two to apologize to each other right now for what you did wrong, then I will tell you my punishment. First you, Soo-Ah.”
Soo-Ah was struggling to utter the words:
“I...um... I am sorry for hitting you, Jung-In.”
“Good. Now you, Jung-In.” encouraged the old master.
Jung-In let out with a sigh,
“And I am sorry for chasing the chickens.”
“Good, now the punishment is that both of you will be in charge of feeding the chickens for the next ten days. Also, Soo-Ah, for hitting Jung-In you will have to share your rice cakes with him for those ten days. You will both have your desserts together at the table, in silence. Now go and ask your Noona to take care of that hit, Jung-In. And do not worry my boy, it is nothing serious - it is a warm-up for when you will join the army.” Old Master caressed the young boy’s hair with sympathy, “Now go do something useful both of you, and do not let me hear you’re bickering from now on!” concluded the general.
Jung-In went to find Ha-Rin Noona hoping she would be able to mend his head, but also knowing the pain his buttocks would suffer from the beating his father would give him before bedtime.
Administrator Han-Gyeol was very harsh with his boy, especially when he upset the young lady of the house. No matter how many times he tried to tell him, there is no convincing Jung-In that he should treat Soo-Ah with respect as his mistress. His temper got the best of him and he often hit the boy and punished him.
When night came, Jung-In was lurking around the servant quarters, delaying for as long as he could the moment he will need to confront his father. He could delay no longer when Han-Gyeol called his name. He hesitated to enter the room, but once he did he went straight to wash his hands and face before going to sleep. His father sumptuously sat on his bed watching the boy’s movements, waiting to see if he would dare to say something. The boy behaved as nothing happened and his father became even more aggravated until he could no longer repress his anger. He jumped from the bed and grabbed the collar of his shirt, while water was still dripping from Jung-In’s face.
“What did I tell you, ha? Why you ’keep making trouble for me? When will you ever learn to show some respect to young mistress Soo-Ah, boy?” his harsh tone was on par with his crude gestures, as he threw his son on the bed and pulled down his pants.
With his wooden rod he lashed out and for each hit, he spat out a motivation,
“This is for chasing the chickens when Ha-Rin told you not to do that anymore!” and the speed of the hit hissed through the air, followed by Jung-In’s muffled cry.
“This is for disrespecting the young mistress!” another hit was heard as it bounced from the boy’s buttocks.
“This is for interrupting me from my work with all your nonsense!”
“This is for upsetting the ol’ master!”
“And this is for you to remember not to do that again!”
The sheet under Jung-In’s face was wet from his tears and his hand was bruised from all the bitting he did to keep muffled his cries, and not to give satisfaction to his father. The last thing he wanted was for Soo-Ah to hear him crying because of a couple of blows.
With sweat beads gathered on his forehead and his neat hair tousled from the exertion, Han-Gyeol sat on the bed next to his son and patted the back of his head gently,
“What am I to do with you, boy? You want ol’ master to chase us away because of you? We have a good life here. Make sure you do what it takes we keep it that way. No breakfast or lunch for you in the next ten days. You will learn the value of having a good roof over your head. And no leaving your room. You will stay here and think about what you did!”
Jung-In said no words aloud that night, to his father, but in his head, he swore to himself he will grow up, and no matter what it takes, he will have no one else tell him what to do. And maybe, one day he will pay back his father for all those hits. The pain and bruises on his buttocks will fade in no time, and with them, all the teachings his father struggled to imprint in the boy’s flesh.
The next day, when their punishment of feeding the chickens began, Soo-Ah asked the boy why he did not come to eat breakfast, and Jung-In reluctantly told her about his other punishment. Soo-Ah heard her friend’s stomach rumbling. When they met again the next day, to fulfil their duty, she already snuck out a part of her breakfast for him.
“Is this for me? But you already have to share your rice cakes.” Jung-In could not believe what he saw.
“I need to feed you. Who knows what will happen to you if I let you go hungry! What if you die? Or worse, what if you have no more strength to pull me in my cart?” replied a worried Soo-Ah.
The small wooden cart was made for Soo-Ah by “Uncle” Han-Gyeol to carry her toys, but she ended up making Jung-In pull her around in it, and he did so gladly. He loved to listen to the little girl’s squeals as he was racing with the cart.
For the next 10 days, they would spend the time after supper alone, inside, in front of the hearth enjoying their desserts.Jung-In started telling her the stories he learned at night-time from his father, about the gods of old. One night, he stared Soo-Ah directly in the eyes,
“You know the god of water, Habaek? I heard he can put out fires with just one look. Since you have eyes like water, I am sure Habaek gave them to you and blessed you so you can also put out fires. Why don’t you try it now? Come on, just stare at the fire and let’s see if you can do something.”
Soo-Ah gave him an untrusting look:
“Pfft, my eyes? A gift from the gods? I do not know...”
“Oh, come on. What can go wrong? Just stare at the fire and we will see,” insisted Jung-In.
“What if I put it out? It would be dark and Noona will tell us a thing or two,” worried Soo-Ah.
“How would she know it was us? Come on, you can just try it. If it works, I will not snitch on you.” - said Jung-In with a perky smile on his face.
Intrigued, Soo-Ah agreed,
“Fine, here I go, but I am sure it is just a stupid idea anyway.”
The girl with eyes like beautiful water, stared intently into the flames as Jung-In watched her, holding his breath. The flames flickered.
“Wow, did you see that, Soo-Ah? You almost did it!” said an overexcited Jung-In.
“No, do you think it was me??” The same excitement started to take over Soo-Ah.
“Yeah, come on, try again!” encouraged Jung-In.
“Okay, Okay!” She began again, but this time nothing happened.“Oh, I guess I did not get a gift from the gods,” said the girl. Her excitement vanishing from her expression.
“No way. I am sure you have a gift. You did see the flames move just then, right? Maybe it’s something like you have to stare into a really great fire or be in some sort of danger. This is how these powers work you know. But for now, we can practice more. What do you say, Soo-Ah?” The boy put his arm over her back as if he was giving moral support.
“And if I practice, do you think I will get better?” A coy Soo-Ah wondered.
“Pfft, of course. What does the old master always say? Practice makes it perfect!” said Jung-In with a grin, feeling all knowledgeable like the old master.